The Harmony of the Sphere
An exploration of the links between football and music
It may be that old-school Marxists have a point and ideological superstructure really is subservient to economic infrastructure after all. Areas of human activity that we instinctively take to be unrelated to each other and, indeed, to anything but themselves, often concur in an odd, troubling way.
Chess, for example, which you'd imagine had more or less evolved according to its own logic (like mathematics, say) since Ruy López's 16th century Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez, has in fact floated, both in theory and practice, in currents which are more familiar to art historians than to epistemologists. There have been ‘classical', ‘romantic', ‘post-romantic', ‘neo-classical', ‘hypermodernist' and ‘post-modern' schools of chess; even a ‘surrealist' faction, as exemplified by the Orang-Utang opening. Push your ‘b' pawn two squares forward and you're Marcel Duchamp. These strands of thought echoed — generally a beat late, but sometimes almost simultaneously — what was happening on the stage, the page, the screen and at the concert hall. The Austrian grandmaster Richard Reti seemed to move his pieces as a blend of the young Arnold Schoenberg and the mature Anton Webern would have done. Maybe it was something in the Vienna air.
Why should football be any different? Like chess, like music, it is circumscribed in time, yet creates its own temporality within set limits; or, if you prefer, it owes its abstractedness to a capacity for constantly remodelling the present, of truly inventing it (or making us experience it in a quasi-transcendent fashion, by cancelling every other reference to temporality). In ‘classical' chess, two hours are assigned to each player for his first forty moves, but not every second is equal to the others. In fact, it could be said that chess defeats the clock, as do music and football. I remember playing through for the first time a defeat of Akiba Rubinstein by Aaron Nimzowitsch, famous for a knight retreat (Nh1) of unfathomable profundity. The piece felt (was) heavier and took ages (forever) to reach its new, incomprehensible square — just as the most violent shots at goal seem to slow down time as the ball races unstoppably to the back of the net.
In ‘classical' music, it is the tyranny of the score and of its tempo markings that provide an apparently rigid frame for the creation of sound, despite the best efforts of the proponents of aleatory composition. Even the wildest extemporisations of ‘free' jazzmen ultimately derive their DNA from the three-minute format which the swing bands of the 1930s had to respect, due to the limitations of 78rpm records. In football, we have two halves, the encore of extra time and the coda of penalties, if needed. Within this space, however, anything goes and a kind of eternity is claimed, which partakes of the intellect as well as of the senses, even if that dimension is often overlooked. Watching football — what you could call the art of spectating — requires a never-ending apprenticeship. Whoever attends a game will process, albeit not always consciously, a huge stream of fluid (and unpredictable, but identifiable) data. This could of course be said of many sports, but not to the same extent. Football, however, is unique in that it eschews stasis, or rest. There is no such thing as time-wasting stricto sensu, and nor is there in chess, and most obviously music. None of the time is ever left unused.
One evening, drinking merrily with a couple of Blizzard friends, we started to muse over the correspondences between music and football. I was not talking about Vindaloo, or why the White Stripes's Seven Nation Army became Emmanuel Eboué's theme tune at the Emirates, but whether, for example, it would be possible to use staves instead of chalkboards to explain, describe, analyse how a team functions as a living organism. And why not even two, as in Stockhausen's Gruppen, in which a couple of orchestras play the same score out of synch? Managers, so often described as ‘conductors', would love it if they could notate movements on the field as precisely as a composer drops notes from a pen on a blank piece of manuscript paper. The similes came quite easily, the puns too. Is there such a thing as a sonata form(ation)? Every Good Boy Deserves Football = E-G-B-D-F. This is how my daughter and her schoolmates memorised the value of each stave line in the treble clef (only in England could such a mnemonic have been conceived).
So, should we want to notate football, how would we set about it? First instinct: the bass clef couldn't do. It was too low, or, if you prefer, too defensive. Even Helenio Herrera's teams would have required the crafty insertion of a treble clef symbol to give space to their lone soloist. I rather liked the idea of the tenor clef; a bit arcane, something for the specialists. The lovely, infuriating thing about the tenor clef is that it moves. There is one for the viola player, a variety of cousins for trombonists, and a few others besides. It seemed to me that it suited the game fine. (‘Tenor' also had a pleasant Italia 90 flavour about it. Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, there's a front three: Domingo as a withdrawn striker, classy and deadly; Carreras as a kind of Bebeto, impish and cutely efficient; Pavarotti, once a winger who had a trial at Modena, now restricted to a groaning bench).
What started as a game turned into something just as enjoyable, but rather more demanding intellectually. It seemed that every which way we turned, we could find striking parallels between football and music — and it wasn't just the wine singing. We may be sick and tired of listening to television pundits enthusing about Brazil's ‘samba football' at every World Cup over a soundtrack of Mas que nada (the Tamba Trio version, please). Great tune, shame about the rap. But Gary Lineker and others have got a point, even if they're making it lazily. One of the peculiarities of samba is that it allows for distortions of time within a settled rhythm.
Once, in a recording studio, I saw and heard the percussionist Bosco de Oliveira demonstrate how it was possible to slow down the beat within a single bar while keeping impeccable time (the Vienna Philharmonic does something similar with Strauss waltzes and I'm told the great Danubian sides of the 1930s also did when they swept upfield). Bosco took his tamborim and showed how he could delay the appearance of rhythmic peaks within the ridge of a bar (or a sequence of bars) that all theoretical books had mapped with impeccable respect for the rules of geometry; the mind would struggle to understand how it was possible to do so, but the body would sway, the music would swing. Give Tostão or Gerson a ball, they'd do the same thing. Euclid didn't play soccer. Perhaps it's all about ‘keeping' time; having it in your keep and doing whatever you feel with it. So there may be something about ‘samba football' after all; a synthesis of fast and slow, rather than an alternation of both.
Olivier Messiaen could ‘see' colours when he heard a particular accretion of notes, a phenomenon known as synaesthesia, which far lesser musicians (such as myself) have also experienced. A Swedish friend of mine can conjure olfactory memories (smell Proust's madeleine coming out of the oven) when listening to Canterbury prog-rock. I asserted that I could assign a chord, or rather, a tonality to almost every team I'd seen in action. Some played in C major, all white notes and fairly bland, some in a majestic E flat, while most lost themselves in a cacophony of clashing keys on a bad day. To my ears and eyes, Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, for example, played in a ‘sharp' key, something which is suggested by the dynamics at work within the movement of the ball from line to line, which seemed attracted forward, just as within a scale of F sharp, the seventh degree, an E sharp, is aiming towards the step that is placed immediately above it, i.e. the tonic. In a tempered system, the distinction between E sharp and F is primarily theoretical and even has a whiff of absurdity about it; but as soon as you have to deal with the practicalities of it on non-tempered instruments, as any violinist will tell you, you realise there is an unbridgeable chasm between the two. An act of will, which itself presupposes a tremendous leap of faith, is required to switch from one to the other. This is the principle of ‘enharmony' — the transition/transgression from one key to another (pressing to attack?), with which it is interchangeable, this almost being a synonym of ‘never', as it is a metamorphosis that takes place, not the juxtaposition of two manifestations of the same identity. Bravery and imagination are equally necessary to achieve that jump, which looks and sounds perfectly natural to the audience, however. In that, Sacchi was an enharmonist; but I'd argue that Herrera was not. His Inter would be playing in something like G flat, not F sharp — the E sharp has become an F and is looking over its shoulder to E flat, the sixth of that chord which, by the way, is also called the ‘Italian' sixth. In the Lisbon European Cup final of 1967, Celtic struck what sounded like a life-affirming A major. Why that should be the case is not that easily explained, as hard, in fact, as answering the childlike question, "Why is grass green?" It is because tonalities are self-affirming, ‘real', if you like, just like the greenness of grass.
Let's go further. Why not divide a football pitch (that word alone should provide enough encouragement for the exercise) with lines as on a stave, with the halfway line acting as a middle C? Movement can be notated. I recently saw a score of Debussy's Faun that Nijinsky had embellished with squiggles which looked like imaginary runes designed by one of JRR Tolkien's imitators. They were the choreographer's shorthand for a jeté, a leap, a change of foot positions. The temptation was there to equate one of Messi's dribbling runs to an astonishingly quick melody, full of passing notes and acacciaturas. No-one else, however, not even Messi himself, would be able to play that particular score more than once: all matches are recorded ‘live'. Stadium rock, if you will, even if a match makes jazzers out of all footballers. For football, when it is being played — and what kind of existence has it outside of the realm of performance? — is pure improvisation. But it should be remembered that improvising is not tapping an endlessly brimming fount of pure inspiration; it is breathing life in scales and figures which have been practised until the fingers were raw. And an improvised line, of course, can be transcribed, even if it can't be repeated note for note, jink for jink, touch for touch. Put all 11 together, and you've got a score.
Imagine the keeper as the cavernous low tone of double basses and contrabassoons; baaaaaaaarp. His closest defenders are the celli, trombones and low woodwinds; midfield brings the tone-rich luxuriance of violas, clarinets, oboes and the like; strikers fidget in the first violin chairs. Attacking, our footballers would, literally, go up the pitch, which is only natural: in music, the higher frequencies of the group or the orchestra have almost always been associated with sublimation and ecstasy. The Lark Ascending. Parsifal. Brian Wilson's falsetto in Let Her Run Wild. Now, imagine Mourinho's Inter in the return leg of their semi-final against Barcelona in 2010. What would it sound like? A deep rumble, confined to the lower lines — ha! — flirting with the bass clef. As to Barça, I'd think of Gerard Piqué dropping the bow and playing crazy pizzicatti on the dusty end of his bass's neck. Thinking he was a solo violin. It nearly worked.
Let's put this nonsense to the test. I've just gone to the piano and played 4-4-2, then 4-2-3-1, then 3-5-2. Each number corresponded (since this is game of correspondences) to its degree in the scale of C major, for the sake of convention and simplicity. Funny: 4-4-2 gives us F-F-D, the notes of ‘Come on you re-eds', or close enough (for jazz). 4-2-3-1 = F-D-E-C, a nice resolution from the sub-dominant to the tonic, elegant, fluid and natural-sounding. I quite like 3-5-2: E-G-D — unresolved, but promising. 4-1-4-1 sounds awful. C-F-C-F — it's crying out to go somewhere else, but it can't. Harmony is the key, if you excuse this à peu près. 4-2-3-1 can be played in succession, in which case these series of tones has a classical ring to it; or you could crush the notes in a single cluster, which I've just done; it sounded like one of Morton Feldman's evocations of the American plains, golden-white and lovely, oddly peaceful, a world of possibilities. All this is ludicrous, naturally, as long as you remember that ‘ludicrous' is derived from ludicrum, ‘a source of amusement'.
This said, tactical systems can't be reduced to three- or four-digit formulae. Were they as rigid as a chemical equation, they'd become so predictable that it'd be far too ‘easy' to counter them — to silence them, if you will, provided the opposition is on roughly equal terms in terms of physical and technical accomplishment. One thing which has long fascinated me is how various observers of undoubted competence can have vastly different perceptions of a team's organisation in the first few minutes of a given game. "4-4-2, diamond, yes?" — "More 4-1-4-1, I think"— "But they're switching flanks, and X is dropping deeper than usual", etc, etc. The reason for this hesitancy, apart from the understandable fear to have been found wrong (which in this case can mean disagreeing with the majority, regardless of the accuracy of one's opinion), is that there may be indeed be a key — which is also a key to understanding what is unfolding on the pitch — but a key that it is subject to constant modulations. I am not talking about the instructions given by the manager-conductor in his technical area, where hand gestures, just as on the orchestral rostrum, indicate crescendos and tempo shifts to the players; I am thinking of the admittedly constrained freedom with which those players express themselves. Some of these modulations may well be rehearsed: Dani Alves bombs forward, Gerard Piqué drifts to the right of the defence, Sergio Busquets drops back like a centre-half who's just been taught W-M. Some of them, most in fact, have the sense of themselves as part of the whole achieved by a well-rehearsed big band, in which every performer is to some degree a soloist, and is constantly adjusting his pitch to that of those who surround him. In that, a football team has far more in common with orchestras of the baroque age than of the classical period, when instrumentalists were given licence to decorate the score of their own volition —within set rules, of course. Or, much closer to us, you could think of the semi-aleatory compositions of Schnittke and Penderecki, in which vast sonic landscapes of impeccable justness are painted in apparently random (but in fact superbly calculated) fashion. Jazz lovers may throw in Charles Mingus at this point. Order as an organisation/prevention of chaos: the idea isn't new.
Which leads me to what is perhaps the most arresting of all these correspondences (certainly the one that speaks to me with the most immediacy) — how a strangely similar sort of beauty is born in the concert hall and in the football stadium. All of Western music, be it classical or otherwise, ultimately springs from the organum of the early medieval ages, when what we now recognise as polyphony evolved from the discovery of immutable mathematical relationships between the degrees of a scale, which led to the harmonisation of monophonic plainchant. Our minds themselves became polyphonic, learnt to enjoy the juxtaposition of tones, whether in strictly horizontal fashion or in contrapuntal form. As time went by, we also developed an ear refined enough to appreciate the subtlety of discords, something which would have been impossible if we hadn't properly integrated assonance to start with. It may seem far-fetched to equate the sensual and spiritual awakening we owe to music with the sheer pleasure we can get from witnessing a truly great match (not forgetting that we may also be transported by a more ordinary one as we are by the simplest of pop songs), but at the heart of it lies this irresistible attraction to harmony. This is a highly personal choice, but no football team has ever moved me as much as Valeriy Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kyiv, as I felt it to be the supreme embodiment of the fusion of individual talents within a collective aspiration to perfection. It goes together with a certain sense of peace, accompanied to what I can only describe as an exhilaration that is both sensual and, yes, spiritual. A symphony, performed by men of which every one could have been the soloist in a concerto. We all have our various Dynamo Kyivs, just as some are thrilled by Wagner while others cherish Robert Wyatt. The common thread is a thirst for a beauty which exists in the present tense and, simultaneously, banishes the passing of time, therefore defeating mortality: harmony, the harmony of the sphere.